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Burnout (psychology)

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Burnout (psychology)

Classification and external resources
ICD-10 Z73.0

Burnout is a psychological term that refers to long-term exhaustion and diminished interest in work. Burnout has been assumed to result from chronic occupational stress (e.g., work overload). However, there is growing evidence that its etiology is multifactorial in nature, with dispositional factors playing an important role.[1][2] Despite its great popularity, burnout is not recognized as a distinct disorder, neither in the DSM,[3] nor in the ICD-10.[4] This is notably due to the fact that burnout is problematically close to depressive disorders. In the only study[5] that directly compared depressive symptoms in burned out workers and clinically depressed patients, no diagnostically significant differences were found between the two groups: burned out workers reported as many depressive symptoms as clinically depressed patients. Moreover, a recent study by Bianchi, Schonfeld, and Laurent (in press) showed that about 90% of burned out workers meet diagnostic criteria for depression, suggesting that burnout may be a depressive syndrome rather than a new or distinct entity.[6]

Clinical psychologist Herbert Freudenberger first identified the construct "burnout" in the 1970s.[7] Social psychologists Christina Maslach and Susan Jackson developed what is the most widely used instrument for assessing burnout, namely, the Maslach Burnout Inventory. The Maslach Burnout Inventory operationalizes burnout as a three-dimensional syndrome made up of exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy.[8] Some researchers and practitioners have argued for an "exhaustion only" model that views that symptom as the hallmark of burnout.[9]

Maslach and her colleague, Michael Leiter, defined the antithesis of burnout as engagement.[10] Engagement is characterized by energy, involvement and efficacy, the opposites of exhaustion, cynicism and inefficacy.[10]

Many theories of burnout include negative outcomes related to burnout, including measures of job function (performance, output, etc.), health related outcomes (increases in stress hormones, coronary heart disease, circulatory issues), and mental health problems such as depression. It has been found that patients with chronic burnout have specific cognitive impairments, which should be emphasized in the evaluation of symptoms and treatment regimes. Significant reductions in nonverbal memory and auditory and visual attention were found for the patient group.[11] The term burnout in psychology was coined by Herbert Freudenberger in his 1974 Staff burnout, presumably based on the 1960 novel A Burnt-Out Case by Graham Greene, which describes a protagonist suffering from burnout.[12]

Burnout is supposed to be a work-specific syndrome. However, this restrictive view of burnout's scope has been shown to be groundless.[13] Thus, the restriction of the study of burnout to the occupational domain results from an arbitrary choice rather than from an empirical necessity.

Burnout is becoming a more common result as the modern workplace changes. Being both economically and psychologically exhausting, the increasingly hostile and demanding environments employees work in is being studied as a cause. More frequently are economic values being placed ahead of human values. The phenomenon is more likely when a mismatch is present between the nature of the job and the person doing the job. A common indication of this mismatch is work overload. It involves doing too much with too little resources, going beyond human limits. This may occur in a situation of downsizing, which often does not reduce a companies mandate, but allocates it to present employees. [14]

While the typical causes of burnout result directly from work, such as the feeling of no control over one's work, lack of recognition for good work, and unclear and overly demanding expectations, the phenomenon may be supplemented by lifestyle and personality outside of the workplace. For instance, lack of sleep and close/personal relationships, high expectations from too many people, working to the point of not allowing time for relaxation and socializing, and pessimistic tendencies all will aid in creating the feeling of burnout if the work environment is already overly pressing. [15]

Being that burnout may sound a lot like stress, it is important to realize that they are not one in the same. While stress is characterized by over-engagement, burnout is characterized by dis-engagement. Stress ultimately produces urgency and hyperactivity, whereas burnout produces helplessness or hopelessness. And although stress may cause a loss of energy and anxiety disorders, burnout often involves loss of motivation, ideals, and hope. [16]

Organizational burnout

Tracy's study of workers aboard cruise ships describes burnout as "a general wearing out or alienation from the pressures of work" (Tracy, 2000 p. 6). "Understanding burnout to be personal and private is problematic when it functions to disregard the ways burnout is largely an organizational problem caused by long hours, little down time, and continual peer, customer, and superior surveillance".[17]

How pressure is dealt with determines how much stress someone feels and how close they are to burnout. One individual can experience few stressors, but be unable to handle the pressure well and thus experience burnout. Another person, however, can experience a far greater number of stressors, but effectively deal with them, and avoid burnout. How close someone is to a state of burnout can be determined through various tests.[18]


Psychologists Herbert Freudenberger and Gail North have theorized that the burnout process can be divided into 12 phases, which are not necessarily followed sequentially.[3]

  1. The Compulsion to Prove Oneself
    Often found at the beginning is excessive ambition. This is one's desire to prove themselves while at the workplace. This desire turns into determination and compulsion.[3]
  2. Working Harder
    Because they have to prove themselves to others or try to fit in an organization that does not suit them, people establish high personal expectations. In order to meet these expectations, they tend to focus only on work while they take on more work than they usually would. It may happen that they become obsessed with doing everything themselves. This will show that they are irreplaceable since they are able to do so much work without enlisting in the help of others.[3]
  3. Neglecting Their Needs
    Since they have devoted everything to work, they now have no time and energy for anything else. Friends and family, eating, and sleeping start to become seen as unnecessary or unimportant, as they reduce the time and energy that can be spent on work.[3]
  4. Displacement of Conflicts
    Now, the person has become aware that what they are doing is not right, but they are unable to see the source of the problem. This could lead to a crisis in themselves and become threatening. This is when the first physical symptoms are expressed.[3]
  5. Revision of Values
    In this stage, people isolate themselves from others, they avoid conflicts, and fall into a state of denial towards their basic physical needs while their perceptions change. They also change their value systems. The work consumes all energy they have left, leaving no energy and time for friends and hobbies. Their new value system is their job and they start to be emotionally blunt.[3]
  6. Denial of Emerging Problems
    The person begins to become intolerant. They do not like being social, and if they were to have social contact, it would be merely unbearable for them. Outsiders tend to see more aggression and sarcasm. It is not uncommon for them to blame their increasing problems on time pressure and all the work that they have to do, instead of on the ways that they have changed, themselves.[3]
  7. Withdrawal
    Their social contact is now at a minimum, soon turning into isolation, a wall. Alcohol or drugs may be sought out for a release since they are obsessively working "by the book". They often have feelings of being without hope or direction.[3]
  8. Obvious Behavioral Changes
    Coworkers, family, friends, and other people that are in their immediate social circles cannot overlook the behavioral changes of this person.[3]
  9. Depersonalization
    Losing contact with themselves, it's possible that they no longer see themselves or others as valuable. The person also loses track of their personal needs. Their view of life narrows to only seeing in the present time, while their life turns to a series of mechanical functions.[3]
  10. Inner Emptiness
    They feel empty inside and to overcome this, they might look for activity such as overeating, sex, alcohol, or drugs. These activities are often exaggerated.[3]
  11. Depression
    Burnout may include depression. In that case, the person is exhausted, hopeless, indifferent, and believes that there is nothing for them in the future. To them, there is no meaning of life. Typical depression symptoms arise.[3]
  12. Burnout Syndrome
    They collapse physically and emotionally and should seek immediate medical attention. In extreme cases, usually only when depression is involved, suicidal ideation may occur, with it being viewed as an escape from their situation. Only a few people will actually commit suicide.[3]


While individuals can cope with the symptoms of burnout, the only way to truly prevent burnout is through a combination of organizational change and education for the individual.[10] Organizations address these issues through their own management development, but often they engage external consultants to assist them in establishing new policies and practices supporting a healthier worklife. Maslach and Leiter postulated that burnout occurs when there is a disconnection between the organization and the individual with regard to what they called the six areas of work life: workload, control, reward, community, fairness, and values.[19]

Resolving these discrepancies requires integrated action on the part of both the individual and the organization.[19] A better connection on workload means assuring adequate resources to meet demands as well as work/life balances that encourage employees to revitalize their energy.[19] A better connection on values means clear organizational values to which employees can feel committed.[19] A better connection on community means supportive leadership and relationships with colleagues rather than discord.[19]

One approach for addressing these discrepancies focuses specifically on the fairness area. In one study employees met weekly to discuss and attempt to resolve perceived inequities in their job.[20] This study revealed decreases in the exhaustion component over time but did not affect cynicism or inefficacy indicating that a broader approach is required.[19]

Some simple prevention tips that may help include: Start the day with a relaxing ritual, adopt healthy eating, exercising, and sleeping habits, set boundaries, take a break from technology, nourish your creative side, and learn how to manage stress. [21]

Coping strategies

There are a variety of ways that both individuals and organizations can deal with burnout. In general, resting proves to be very effective. This may include a temporary reduction of working hours, slowly rebuilding the endurance of the individual. In his book, Managing stress: Emotion and power at work (1995), Newton argues that many of the remedies related to burnout are motivated not from an employee's perspective, but from the organization's perspective. Despite that, if there are benefits to coping strategies, then it would follow that both organizations and individuals should attempt to adopt some burnout coping strategies. Below are some of the more common strategies for dealing with burnout.

Organizational aspects

Employee assistance programs (EAP)

Stemming from Mayo's Hawthorne Studies, employee assistance programs were designed to assist employees in dealing with the primary causes of stress. Some programs included counseling and psychological services for employees. There are organizations that still utilize EAPs today, but the popularity has diminished substantially because of the advent of stress management training (SMT).

Stress management training

Stress management training (SMT) is employed by many organizations today as a way to get employees to either work through stress or to manage their stress levels—to maintain stress levels below that which might lead to higher instances of burnout.

Stress interventions

Research has been conducted that links certain interventions, such as narrative writing or topic-specific training, to reductions in physiological and psychological stress.

Individual aspects

Problem-based coping

On an individual basis, employees can cope with the problems related to burnout and stress by focusing on the causes of their stress. Various therapies, such as neurofeedback therapy, claim to assist in cases of burnout. This type of coping has successfully been linked to reductions in individual stress.

Appraisal-based coping

Appraisal-based coping strategies deal with individual interpretations of what is and is not a stress inducing activity. There have been mixed findings related to the effectiveness of appraisal-based coping strategies.

Social support

Social support has been seen as one of the largest predictors toward a reduction in burnout and stress for workers. Creating an organizationally-supportive environment as well as ensuring that employees have supportive work environments do mediate the negative aspects of burnout and stress.

See also

Stress and the workplace:



  1. ^ Alarcon, G., Eschleman, K. J., & Bowling, N. A. (2009). Relationships between personality variables and burnout: A meta-analysis. Work & Stress, 23(3), 244-263.
  2. ^ Swider, B. W., & Zimmerman, R. D. (2010). Born to burnout: A meta-analytic path model of personality, job burnout, and work outcomes. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 76(3), 487-506.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Ulrich Kraft, "Burned Out", Scientific American Mind, June/July 2006 p. 28-33
  4. ^ ICD-10: International Classification of Diseases. Geneva: World Health Organization, 1994.
  5. ^ Bianchi, R., Boffy, C., Hingray, C., Truchot, D., & Laurent, E. (2013). Comparative symptomatology of burnout and depression. Journal of Health Psychology, 18 (6), 782–787.
  6. ^ Bianchi, R., Schonfeld, I. S., & Laurent, E. (in press). Is burnout a depressive disorder? A re-examination with special focus on atypical depression. International Journal of Stress Management.
  7. ^ Freudenberger, H. J. (1974). Staff burnout. Journal of Social Issues, 30(1), 159-165.
  8. ^ Maslach, C., Jackson, S.E, & Leiter, M.P. MBI: The Maslach Burnout Inventory: Manual. Palo Alto: Consulting Psychologists Press, 1996.
  9. ^ See Kristensen, T.S., Borritz, M., Villadsen, E., & Christensen, K.B. The Copenhagen Burnout Inventory: A new tool for the assessment of burnout. Work & Stress, 2005, 19, 192-207.; Shirom, A. & Melamed, S. Does burnout affect physical health? A review of the evidence. In A. S. G. Antoniou & C. L. Cooper (Eds.), Research companion to organizational health psychology (pp. 599-622). Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 2005.
  10. ^ a b c Maslach, C. & Leiter, M.P. The truth about burnout. New York. Jossey-Bass, 1997.
  11. ^ Sandstrom, A; Rhodin IN; Lundberg M; Olsson T; Nyberg L. (20005). "Impaired cognitive performance in patients with chronic burnout sysndrome.". Biological Psychology 69 (3): 271–279. doi:10.1016/j.biopsycho.2004.08.003. Retrieved December 5, 2012. 
  12. ^ Can’t Get No Satisfaction: In a culture where work can be a religion, burnout is its crisis of faith. by Jennifer Senior, November 26, 2006, New York Magazine
  13. ^ Bianchi, R., Truchot, D., Laurent, E., Brisson, R., & Schonfeld, I. S. (2014). Is burnout solely job-related? A critical comment. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology. [Epub ahead of print.]
  14. ^ Maslach, C. & Leiter, M.P. The truth about burnout. New York. Jossey-Bass, 1997.
  15. ^ Smith M. M.A., Segal J. Ph.D., & Segal R. M.A.
  16. ^ Smith M. M.A., Segal J. Ph.D., & Segal R. M.A.
  17. ^ Tracy, S. (2000) Becoming a Character for Commerce Emotion. Management Communication Quarterly, 14. 113
  18. ^ Truby, B. (2009)
  19. ^ a b c d e f Maslach, C.; Schaufeli, W. B.; Leiter, M. P. (2001). S. T. Fiske, D. L. Schacter, & C. Zahn-Waxler, ed. "Job burnout". Annual Review of Psychology (52): 397–422. 
  20. ^ van Dierendonck, D.; Schaufeli, WB; Buunk, BP (1998). "The evaluation of an individual burnout intervention program: the role of inequity and social support". Journal of Applied Psychology (83): 392–407. 
  21. ^ Smith M. M.A., Segal J. Ph.D., & Segal R. M.A.

Further reading

  • "A review and integration of research on job burnout", Cordes, C. and Dougherty, T. (1993). Academy of Management Review, 18, 621-656. Cited in O'Driscoll, M. P. and Cooper, C.L. (1996).
  • "Sources of Management of Excessive Job Stress and Burnout", In P. Warr (Ed.), Psychology at Work Fourth Edition. Penguin.
  • "Tailoring treatment strategies for different types of burnout" Farber, B. A. (1998). Paper presented at the Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, 106th, San Francisco California, August 14–18. ED 424 517
  • "Staff burnout", Freudenberger, H. J. (1974). Journal of Social Issues, 30(1), 159-165.
  • "Authentic leaders creating healthy work environments for nursing practice", Shirey M. R. American Journal of Critical Care May 2006. Vol. 15, Iss. 3; p. 256
  • "Taming burnout's flame", Krista Gregoria Lussier, Nursing Management Chicago: April 2006. Vol. 37, Iss. 4; p. 14
  • "A Scientific Solution To Librarian Burnout", Craig S. Shaw New Library World Year 1992 Volume: 93 Number: 5
  • Stress and Burnout in Library Service, Caputo, Janette S. Phoenix, AZ: Oryx Press, 1991.
  • An assessment of burnout in academic librarians in America using the Maslach Burnout Inventor (the MBI) Ray, Bernice, Ph.D., Rutgers University - New Brunswick, 2002, 90 pages; AAT 3066762
  • Tracy, S. (2000) Becoming a Character for Commerce Emotion. Management Communication Quarterly, 14. 90-128
  • Newton, T. (1995). Managing stress: Emotion and power at work. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  • Herbert J. Freudenberger (1980), Burn-Out: The High Cost of High Achievement. Anchor Press
  • Herbert J. Freudenberger and Gail North (1985). Women’s Burnout: How to Spot It, How to Reverse It, and How to Prevent It, Doubleday
  • Maslach, C., Schaufeli, W. B., & Leiter, M. P. (2001). Job burnout. In S. T. Fiske, D. L. Schacter, & C. Zahn-Waxler (Eds.), Annual Review of Psychology, 52, 397-422.
  • Maslach, C., & Leiter, M. P. (2008). Early predictors of job burnout and engagement. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93, 498-512.
  • Maslach, C. & Leiter, M. P. (1997). The truth about burnout. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.
  • Shaufeli, W. B., Leiter, M. P., & Maslach, C. (2009). Burnout: Thirty-five years of research and practice. Career Development International,14,204-220.
  • Maslach, C., Jackson, S. E, & Leiter, M. P. MBI: The Maslach Burnout Inventory: Manual. Palo Alto: Consulting Psychologists Press, 1996.
  • Kristensen, T.S., Borritz, M., Villadsen, E., & Christensen, K.B. The Copenhagen Burnout Inventory: A new tool for the assessment of burnout. Work & Stress, 2005, 19, 192-207.
  • Shirom, A. & Melamed, S. Does burnout affect physical health? A review of the evidence. In A.S.G. Antoniou & C.L. Cooper (Eds.), Research companion to organizational health psychology (pp. 599–622). Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 2005.
  • Sanders, Marc. (2013) "Existential Depression. How to recognize and cure life-related sadness in gifted people", Sel-Help Manual.
  • van Dierendonck D., Schaufeli W. B., Buunk B. P. (1998). The evaluation of an individual burnout intervention program: the role of in- equity and social support. J. Appl. Psychol. 83:392–407
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